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  • Writer's pictureRachel Paige

Getting a Better View

I never thought I'd be an author that wrote with multiple points of view (POV). I thought I'd stick with one narrator for the entire story. I'm not sure why I thought that, because anything I've ever written with chapters has more than one narrator.

The idea I just started working on this summer has two. The novellas I wrote in middle school had two or three. Even one of my current works-in-progress, Chaos in G Major has the narrator's brother, Sam, take over as a one chapter "guest narrator" at the climax. The only story I've ever written with one narrator was the first draft of Definitions of Life, which was a total disaster and now has four narrators.

But what's the value of multiple POVs? And how and when should you go about using them?

Multiple POVs allow the reader to see inside the head of multiple characters without having to use an omniscient POV. It doesn't flow between heads like omniscient does. It gives readers specific times in the head of each viewpoint character. And it can be in first or third person. Omniscient can only be third. It gives readers information, perspectives, and thoughts they otherwise would not have access to. It lets the reader know more than any individual character, which is a lot of fun to play with.

So they have value, but when should you use multiple POVs?

There's no "right" answer , but there are a few general rules. Typically, you should only use another narrator when A) they can go places the other narrator cannot, B) know things the other narrator doesn't know, or C) have opinions the other narrator does not share or agree with.

If you're going to make your reader look at the same location with the same information and the same opinions on those two things, don't make them read it from multiple character's viewpoints. Stick with one.

In Definitions of Life all four of my narrators exist in basically the same location, but they all have different information and opinions. I use those perspectives to play off each other and give the reader a broader understanding of the dynamics of the characters.

So that's when you should use them, but how should you use multiple POVs?

Again, no "right" way to do this, but here's some general guidelines.

Keep it consistent. Don't do one narrator for 6 chapters, the next for 3, then 12, then 7, and so on. Keep the time you spend in each POV fairly even. The longer readers stick with a character, the harder it is to get them to connect with the next one. This is especially important at the beginning of the novel. Don't introduce a new narrator halfway through. Do it in the first few chapters. In Definitions of Life, I switch every chapter in a fairly consistent order.

Label the chapters. Don't leave readers guessing. Put the POV character's name as the header or title.

Make the voices unique. Assume readers won't read the header. How will they know who's talking? If they can't figure it out in the first few lines, rewrite them with a stronger voice. I'll talk soon about character voice, but try to think about what this character would notice, say, or do that sets them apart. The reader should "hear" the opening of the chapter in their voice.

Pick the narrator wisely. I heard from an author at a writing conference (I wish I could remember who so I could give credit) that she usually picks the least expected narrator. Which makes a lot of sense. If readers are expecting a character to narrate a certain event, it's likely because they already know how that character feels about it. Pick someone the readers don't expect to give them a fresh perspective.

Now, there are exceptions to some of this. You should always label the chapters and keep the voice unique, but if you have a good reason to break other rules, do it. I said that in Chaos in G Major, Sam only narrates one chapter. At the climax. That's not consistent and the readers have been deep in Olivia's head for the first 2/3 of the novel. But, Olivia is not in a mental state that allowed her to narrate and I felt like the readers needed to see the events of that moment instead of hearing about them later.

So I stuck Sam's name as the header of the chapter and made sure to refer to Olivia as "Livy," which only Sam calls her, in the first couple lines. Readers knew right away it wasn't Olivia talking anymore, even if they missed the header. And even though I broke the consistency rule, Sam has a unique voice. He uses choppy and direct sentences at high intense moments. Olivia uses longer ones. Sam repeats phrases more than Olivia. He focuses on sight and she focuses on sound.

Their voices are different, so readers aren't confused by the switch. That being said, you shouldn't switch narrators for one chapter only at your climax if your narrator is still capable of narrating. But, if you have a good reason to break the rules, go for it.

In general, most rules of writing can be broken, but only if you have a good reason to do so.


Do you write with multiple POVs? What "rules" would you add?

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